22 February 2010

Minnesotans Help Afghans Help Themselves

After I posted some reactions last week to a Minnesota Public Radio multimedia package regarding the 34th Infantry Division Headquarters recent return from Iraq, one attentive Red Bull Rising reader pointed out the work of two Minneapolis Star-Tribune employees filing stories from Afghanistan.

Reporter Mark Brunswick and photographer Richard Sennott spent four weeks in country in late 2009, and filed a series of stories, photos, and videos from Northern Afghanistan earlier this month. The two focused on covering two units--Duluth's 114th Transportation Company, and a 12-solider Embedded Training Team (ETT) working in the Northern province of Samangan.

In Part 1 of the series, "Winning the battle of Ayabak," Brunswick describes the challenges faced down by the ETT: corruption, illiteracy, lack of hygiene, and lack of professionalism in the Afghan National Army. Upon their arrival, the Minnesotans found 100 Afghan soldiers living in filth, without adequate shelter or food service facilities.

It's the ETT's job to help train and professionalize Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), so that they can fight their own battles and police their own country.
The Afghan base commander was living in a room with heat, electricity and a TV that provided a snowy but passable picture while his soldiers suffered outside. [Maj. Robb] Mattila, of Sartell, decided to risk violating a fistful of military and cultural taboos. The no-nonsense onetime college ROTC instructor put his finger in the Afghan officer's chest and demanded action.

"I told him that I was going to take his heater away if he didn't get things right for his men," Mattila recalled.
Mattila's group of Minnesotans is paired with a group of Croatians, so the ETT apparently goes by the more-European moniker of "Operational Mentor and Liaison Team" (OMLT)--pronounced "omelette."

In Part 2 of the series, "Repeat tours take their toll," Brunswick discusses how soldiers work within a world of multiple deployments and risk of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). That topic alone is worth more exploration and examination, which I'll hope to get to in future posts. For now, suffice to say that it's an extremely worthwhile read for soldiers, friends, and family facing a deployment.

In Part 3 of the series, "Whose war is it anyway," Brunswick tells the story of illiteracy and incompetency in the Afghan ranks. A country with an illiteracy rate of 70 percent, he notes, can't support an Army capable of operating and maintaining all the new materiel being pushed to them, much less read the manuals.

In addition to illiteracy, there are the barriers of corruption, and bigotry, and even history:
The Russian influence is evident everywhere. Many soldiers still wear Russian winter coats. Russian-provided Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles are the predominant weapon. Lower-ranking officers remain hesitant to issue an order unless it's handed down to them directly from their commander, reflecting the hierarchal nature of the Soviet military.

Ethnic and religious divides also split the Afghan army. A low-level soldier might bypass his chain of command and seek a leave from his top commander because both are from the same ethnic group. Corruption is rampant in some areas, with supplies stolen for resale. Soldier pay is being increased to $240 a month from $180, but the Afghan "cash men" assigned to handle payrolls pocket some of the cash or charge fees to hand out pay. Even when the pay comes through without a problem, it can pale against what the Taliban is offering for service on the other side of the firefights.


"When you start out, you usually ask yourself how many touchdowns are we going to score before we go home," said Maj. Robb Mattila of Sartell, the commander of the Guard unit. "With this assignment, we're hoping to move the ball ahead, maybe, five yards when we're done."
In short, Brunswick and Sennott's efforts are in the best vein of American journalism: They tell it like it is, without sugar-coating or spin-control, and without losing faith in the hometown boys and girls we've sent to do the job. That's not a bad investment--Minnesota Post commentator David Brauer estimated the Star-Trib only spent about $6,000 on the trip. (He also complimented the package as "gripping but not mawkish.")

Do yourself a favor, and click over to read the whole package.

Related article: Read a Feb. 20 New York Times assessment of Afghan forces based on recent Marine-supported operations in Marja, Helmand Province here. The title? "Marines do heavy lifting as Afghan Army lags in battle."

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